Even libertarians don't want private roads

Can you ever have free-market highways?

Just missing the UK news agenda, the Atlantic has a post up on road tolls and private highways. In a reversal of the norm for discussions of high degrees of privatisation, its merely a theoritical concern for Americans, but has deeply practical relevence for Brits.

Timothy B. Lee writes:

While I'm generally sympathetic to the idea of privately-managed roads, I've become convinced that the broader vision of "free-market roads" is a conceptual confusion. In the abstract, the idea of competing, privately-owned roads has a lot of appeal. But the more I think about it, the less sense it makes. Roads are deeply intertwined with governments. They always have been and as far as I can see they always will be. This means that they'll never be truly private in the sense that other private companies like restaurants or shoe factors can be.

Assembling the land needed for a long-distance road is prohibitively expensive without government assistance. Unsurprisingly, private roads almost never come into existence without extensive government assistance. And that means that the profitability of a "private" road depends crucially on how many competing roads the government allows to exist.

Lee is no anti-privatisation zealot, either. An adjunct scholar with the high-libertarian Cato Institute, he's exactly the sort of person who would love to support the government taking a back seat on provision of transportation.

It is noteable that the government's plans don't involve large scale private road-building, but the lesser challenge of handing over the maintanence and development of existing roads to private investors on extremely long-term leases. If the private companies do so purely through existing funding, then the issue is merely one of comparative efficiency of the public and private sector, and the privatisation is just a showy, irreversible outsourcing. But if, as Cameron suggested, they are allowed to charge tolls on new capacity, then that carries additional risks.

As Lee argues, because any large scale road-building (which surely includes things like adding extra lanes to motorways, cited by Cameron as something which could be funded through tolls) requires massive public support, through use of eminent domain to assemble the land and no-compete clauses to prevent revenue streams from drying up, tolls on previously public roads represent, at least in part, a tax on mobility.

There is one key difference between the American and British contexts, though; in the UK, competition – of a sort – exists. Freight is frequently moved through the rail network as well as the roads, and shipping is far more useful in a country which is never further than 70 miles from the sea. Of course, true competition means avoiding "too-big-to-fail" scenarios; for now, the idea of reposessed roads might be a bit much to handle.

Future of British roads? A Bolivian highway. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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